Casting doubt on the words of Jesus leads to despair. Instead, we should trust in God's promises

St Jerome, one of the great Doctors of the Church and the patron saint of Biblical scholars, famously said that “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Yet in a recent interview, the current Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr Arturo Sosa SJ, asserted that Jesus’ words, as recorded in the Gospels, are not necessarily what He meant to say. If Fr Sosa is right, then it appears that the Scriptures are not a trustworthy source to know Jesus Christ.

Responding to Cardinal Müller’s earlier interview in which he noted that the Lord’s prohibition against divorce in Matthew 19 is absolute and cannot be changed, Fr Sosa ostensibly agreed: “No one can change the word of Jesus.” However, he’s certain that “there would have to be a lot of reflection on what Jesus really said. At that time, no one had a recorder to take down His words.” He goes on to enthuse: “Over the last century in the Church, there has been a great blossoming of studies that seek to understand what Jesus meant to say.”

I certainly wouldn’t say such studies have “blossomed” in the Church. They have produced little but confusion.

Sosa is referring to a certain strand of historical-critical scholarship of the Scriptures that began in academic circles sometime during the Enlightenment and reached its peak of influence in the mid-20th century. It subjects the Bible to a purely historical interpretation, which separates the texts from their lived context in the Church and subjects them to a quasi-scientific method. Using literary criticism, historical and archeological studies, and sociocultural anthropology, these scholars attempt to identify an historical Jesus that existed prior to the articulated beliefs and trappings that the Church supposedly devised about Him.

Presuming they are operating in a scientific manner, these historical-critical scholars have assumed for themselves an authority to determine not only what Jesus actually said prior to the elaborate written narratives of the Gospels but also what he must have meant. Not surprisingly, since this method has its origins in the anti-institutional and anti-dogmatic milieu of the Enlightenment, these scholars’ conclusions about the historical Jesus often contradict or correct those most challenging doctrines and dogmas of Church.

The nadir of these biblical studies came in the United States in the mid-1980s with the establishment of the Jesus Seminar by Robert Funk. Until the mid-1990s, the Seminar regularly gathered a group of approximately 150 scholars to determine collectively what were most likely the authentic sayings and deeds of the historical Jesus around which the Gospel narratives were written. In 1993, without any sense of irony, the scholars of the Seminar collectively voted on the sayings of Jesus to determine which ones were likely authentic and which ones were only somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or unlikely authentic. In the end, the scholars collectively concluded that only eleven sayings of Jesus reported in the Gospels were likely authentic. Not surprisingly, all eleven of them are those teachings that secular liberalism espouses without qualm (eg concern for the poor, loving enemies, and turning the other cheek).

If Fr Sosa and scholars like those of the Jesus Seminar are right, and we really cannot accept what the Gospels report as authentically communicating the words and meaning of Jesus Christ, then what we are left with is far worse than a Protestant sola Scriptura view of the Bible. Contrary to 2 Timothy 3:16, the Scriptures would no longer be suitable for teaching: their meaning could not be known, even by the Church, without explicit scholarly analysis. Far from opening the Word of God to the faithful, such a view manifests an elitism often associated with the clericalism of the Middle Ages.

Fortunately, despite what Fr Sosa asserts and seems to believe, the Church has neither ever endorsed nor ever supported this approach to interpreting the Scriptures. The historical-critical movement was already waning in its influence at the advent of the Second Vatican Council. In its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), the Council declared that in Jesus Christ the “full revelation of the Supreme God is brought to completion.” Moreover, the apostles faithfully handed on what they themselves had received “from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.” The commission to pass on the saving truth of Jesus was further fulfilled “by those apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing.”

The Council went on to declare that the Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition form a single deposit of faith that allows the faithful, under the guidance of the shepherds of the Church, to remain steadfast in the teachings of the Apostles in a common heritage of the faith. “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God but serves it.”And the teaching office of the Church has been unanimous from the beginning that Christ’s prohibition of divorce and remarriage is absolute. The specific purpose of the magisterium, according to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, is in fact “to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error” (890).

Joseph Ratzinger’s theology has engaged profoundly with historical questions. But much of his work stands in opposition to the ideas espoused by Fr Sosa in this interview, and those of the studies Fr Sosa supports. Ratzinger once argued: “The crisis of faith in Christ in recent times began with a modified way of reading Sacred Scripture – seemingly the sole scientific way.” The Scriptures, however, arose within the communion of the Church – the ecclesial community formed by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. It is only within the Church that the Word of God is living and is more than merely an ancient text subject to scholarly study and dispute.

When he took possession of the cathedra of Rome at St. John Lateran in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI lamented, “Whenever Sacred Scripture is separated from the living voice of the Church, it falls prey to disputes among experts.” These experts cannot offer a definitive interpretation of the Scripture – a certain interpretation “with which we can live and for which we can even die. A greater mandate is necessary for this, which cannot derive from human abilities alone. The voice of the living Church is essential for this, of the Church entrusted until the end of time to Peter and the College of the Apostles.” When the Sacred Scriptures are detached from the living voice of the Church, Ratzinger once observed, “the result is an often highly fanciful allegorical interpretation, which turns out to be a means of self-affirmation for the interpreter.” If one attempts to study Scripture apart from the faith of the Church, we should not be surprised that conclusions are reached which affirm one’s own proclivities rather than the doctrines of the magisterium.

And this is perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of Fr Sosa’s interview. The perennial teaching of the Church including that of Vatican II, holds that not only is Christ the source of saving moral truth, but also that the Holy Spirit inspired and guided the preaching of the apostles, the writing of the Scriptures, the formation of the canon of the Bible, and the ongoing interpretation of the Word by the authentic teaching office of the Church. We can have confidence that the Gospels communicate what Christ said, and, with the Church, we know what He meant. Fr Sosa, on the other hand, seems to assert that none of this is absolute because “the word is relative, the Gospel is written by human beings, it is accepted by the Church which is made up of human persons.”

The only thing, seemingly, that can be trusted according to Fr Sosa is one’s own discernment which, he says, “listens to the Holy Spirit, who – as Jesus has promised – helps us to understand the signs of God’s presence in human history.” While he admits that true discernment cannot replace doctrine, he nonetheless believes it can come to conclusions that are different from doctrine. And this is so because, in his words, “doctrine does not replace discernment, nor does it the Holy Spirit.”

It’s not clear how to make sense of this apparent contradiction, or how this is anything other than a relativism that despairs at the teaching of Christ definitively known and interpreted by the magisterium of the Church. Indeed, Fr Sosa himself says: “Doctrine is a word that I don’t like very much, it brings with it the image of the hardness of stone. Instead the human reality is much more nuanced, it is never black or white, it is in continual development.” Standing opposed to such despair is the entirety of the New Testament and the lives of countless saints including St Ignatius of Loyola. They all testify that the life of faith is an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ but not an amorphous one. No, the life of faith takes a definite form of both knowledge about God and a specific way of living, all of which is communicated through the Church, the body of Christ.

Far from being stone tablets, the definite teachings of the new covenant in Christ are written on the heart, enlighten the mind, and are lived in grace. The children of God thus stand neither ignorant of God’s will nor oppressed by it but rather are liberated to live it. This is because, in the words of St Peter, “his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these [we] may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature”(2 Peter 1:3-4).

The ideas put forth in Fr Sosa’s interview not only engender doubt and despair about the Gospels and the Church, but also about the promises of God, who calls us to union with Him, and who has given us all that is necessary to live life with Him and for Him.